When I talk about living and working in Qatar to friends, family and acquaintances from the US and UK, I usually get asked two questions, the first being, ‘Have you ever had any trouble because you are a woman working in the Middle East?’
The answer to this question is simply ‘No’, but I’d like to elaborate on this.
Because the majority of the population of Qatar are expatriate and migrant workers, these are the people I come into contact everyday. I work with people from the US and UK, Australia, France, and other parts of the Middle East (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon). The people who work in the grocery stores and shopping malls, restaurants, and the men who drive the cabs are all mostly from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and the Far East, and as a result, oftentimes you’d be hard pressed to name which country you were in by just looking at the people around you. By some odd twist of fate, these people seem more like locals than Qataris. Partly for the reasons mentioned above, and partly because of the people I work with, I really don’t notice that much of a difference between my working day here and in the UK. It’s difficult to explain but it’s also because of this that I’m not really sure if my experience gives a good representation of what it’s like being a female in the Middle East.
Population stats aside, Qatar is a very safe country if you are a woman (or anyone for that matter) on your own. Although I am only speaking from personal experience, I feel very safe in Doha, and I have never run into any trouble or faced any situation that made me feel uncomfortable (knock on wood).
The second question that I get asked most often when I mention living in Qatar is, ‘Do you have to wear a burka’? This is a huge resounding ‘NO’ because a) Qatari women (and the majority of women in the Gulf region) do not wear Burkas and b) foreigners are not required to cover up.
Burkas are garments that cover the entire body from head to toe, like a sheet, leaving only an opening for the eyes. Qatari woman wear what is called an Abaya, a black robe with long sleeves that fastens down the centre. These can be plain black although some women like to wear embellished Abayas with embroidery or sequins and jewels around the neckline and sleeves. On their heads they wear a shawl/scarf called a Sheila (pronounced Shay-la). This wraps around the head, as opposed to covering the top of the head and neck like a Hijab. Some women also cover their entire face with a garment called a Niqab, leaving only small openings for the eyes. This is usually a fabric that matches the Abaya but sometimes I have seen older women wearing metal plates over their faces and noses but I do not know what these are called or the significance and/or difference between them and the Niqab. I also do not completely understand why some women (choose to?) cover their entire faces while others opt for just the Sheila.
Qatari men wear a white garment called a Thobe or Dishdasha. On their heads they wear a (usually) white, small cotton cap called a Tagiyah with a scarf-like Kufiya over it, held in place by a black, cord Egal. Kufiyas are usually white but you also see red and white and black and white patterned ones, which may have different names, I’m not sure. Oh, and they top off the look with mirrored aviators, always mirrored aviator sunglasses. If the State of Qatar were to have a pair of ‘national sunglasses’ it would definitely be the Ray-Ban mirrored aviator.
I have an HR contract which states what is acceptable work attire; dresses, trousers/skirts below the knee and blouses with a modest neck line and no less than half sleeve. Outside of work I am free to wear what I want however, I tend to stick to the general rule of always keeping my shoulders and knees covered. I have seen expat women wearing much less and, although I could probably get away with it too, I find it a bit rude and disrespectful. If you have taken the time and effort to move to another country then I really think you must also make the effort to respect the local customs and views as best you can.